Two things are certain: The Gospel will go forward to all nations and it will be met with opposition.
From the opening page of Genesis to the closing chapter of Revelation, we see God drawing people to Himself. And today, more than in any previous generation, we are witnessing a worldwide expansion of the Gospel. Millions have turned to Christ in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Even in places historically resistant to the Gospel, such as Iran, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Nepal, unprecedented numbers of men and women have put their faith in Christ. As the kingdom of God grows deep, it is also growing wide, embracing people from all backgrounds—Muslim, Hindu, atheist, and Buddhist.
Yet in virtually every case, the expansion of the kingdom has been met with opposition. Even as the church grows, so do the accounts of persecution: ostracism from families and friends, loss of work, beatings, and martyrdom.
To navigate the rough waters ahead, we need a compass. In a word, that compass is grace, for grace not only explains suffering, it sustains us in the midst of it.
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself …”
The light of the Gospel penetrates the dark spaces we hold dear—our natural desires, ambitions, and reputations. But the ultimate threat is to something deeper within us—the conviction that, in the final analysis, it’s about us. And that conviction does not the easily.
When Ahmed professed faith in Christ, his Muslim parents denied him. He was cut off from his family. It’s not that the parents don’t like Jesus or His teachings, or the positive changes in Ahmed’s life. It’s just that their focus is primarily on themselves, namely on the very real shame they experience now that their son professes Christ. They believe a good son would not do such a thing to his parents, so cutting ties with him restores the family’s honor.
When faced with the Gospel, the world reacts like Ahmed’s parents. It demands the right to self: to determine destinies, to correct mistakes, to hold the keys to each private kingdom. Chinese officials demand control, and so they persecute an independent church. American relativists demand options, and so they resist the exclusive claims of Christ. Marxist rebels demand allegiance, and so they target pastors who call people to follow Jesus.
The Gospel runs right into such claims, for grace means that we bring nothing to the table. God’s love for us is based on no merit of our own—good news indeed, but bad news for the self. The spread of the Gospel, then, forces upon us a choice, either to deny ourselves or deny the Gospel.
“… and take up his cross …”
To give up reliance upon self is only possible by relying on someone greater. When Jesus tells us to take up our crosses, He is not calling us to some self-imposed burden. That is the anti-Gospel. Instead, Jesus calls us to be entirely identified with Himself, such that we can expect to suffer for sharing His name.
Yet suffering is anathema to every American value. Indeed, the pursuit of happiness is a part of our charter. Americans have a deeply rooted impulse to resolve problems, right wrongs, and pursue comfort. In our minds, suffering is a problem to be corrected. Thus, when we consider our persecuted brothers and sisters, we pray as we would pray for ourselves: that they would be delivered from suffering. Amazingly though, that is not the most frequent prayer request of persecuted Christians. They ask us to pray that they would be faithful. They know God is at work and count it a privilege to suffer for His name’s sake (Acts 5:41).
To identify with Christ is also to identify with His body: “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26a). We are more than figuratively connected to the Sudanese boy whose parents were killed for their faith. Indeed, we have more in common with that orphan struggling for his next meal than we do with our neighbor struggling to make his next car payment.
By cutting away our earthly affections, suffering draws the parts of the body closer. C. S. Lewis perceptibly wrote to a friend that “I could well believe that it is God’s intention, since we have refused milder remedies, to compel us into unity, by persecution even and hardship. Those who suffer the same things from the same people for the same Person can scarcely not love each other.”
“… and follow Me.”
At the burning bush, God told Moses, a poor shepherd, to go to the most powerful man on earth and demand that he let God’s people go. Moses took stock of the situation and expressed doubt that he was the man for the job. How did God meet Moses’ need? By reassuring Moses of his leadership abilities, his steadfastness, or even how God had prepared him for this moment? No, God gave Moses no assurance whatsoever about his own abilities. He gave him the only thing Moses really needed: the presence of God: “I will certainly be with you” (Ex. 3:12).
Whenever God sends someone, He never sends him alone. For Moses standing at the burning bush or each Christian responding to the Great Commission, Jesus has promised to be with us.
Faithfulness in the midst of persecution, then, has nothing to do with our own resolve or courage. Fearlessness has nothing to do with us at all. Instead, it has everything to do with God’s grace.
The Gospel will spread, and with it, persecution. But God’s grace is more than sufficient to overcome.